New York Noise
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New York Noise

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246 pages
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2016 AAUP Public and Secondary School Library Selection


Audiovisual materials for the book available at the Ethnomusicology Multimedia website Listen to an IU Press podcast with an author.


Coined in 1992 by composer/saxophonist John Zorn, "Radical Jewish Culture," or RJC, became the banner under which many artists in Zorn's circle performed, produced, and circulated their music. New York's downtown music scene, part of the once-grungy Lower East Side, has long been the site of cultural innovation. It is within this environment that Zorn and his circle sought to combine, as a form of social and cultural critique, the unconventional, uncategorizable nature of downtown music with sounds that were recognizably Jewish. Out of this movement arose bands, like Hasidic New Wave and Hanukkah Bush, whose eclectic styles encompassed neo-klezmer, hardcore and acid rock, neo-Yiddish cabaret, free verse, free jazz, and electronica. Though relatively fleeting in rock history, the "RJC moment" produced a six-year burst of conversations, writing, and music—including festivals, international concerts, and nearly two hundred new recordings. During a decade of research, Tamar Barzel became a frequent visitor at clubs, post-club hangouts, musicians' dining rooms, coffee shops, and archives. Her book describes the way RJC forged a new vision of Jewish identity in the contemporary world, one that sought to restore the bond between past and present, to interrogate the limits of racial and gender categories, and to display the tensions between secularism and observance, traditional values and contemporary concerns.


Ethnomusicology Multimedia Series Preface
Acknowledgements
Introduction: The Downtown Scene
1. Jewish Music: The Art of Getting it Wrong
2. "Radical Jewish Culture": A Community Emerges
3. From the Inexorable to the Ineffable: John Zorn's Kristallnacht and the Masada Project
4. Queer Dada Judaism: G-d Is My Co-Pilot and the "Inbetween Space"
5. Shelley Hirsch and Anthony Coleman: Music and Memory from the "Nowhere Place"
Epilogue
Notes
Bibliography
Index

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Ethnomusicology Multimedia Series Preface
Acknowledgements
Introduction: The Downtown Scene
1. Jewish Music: The Art of Getting it Wrong
2. "Radical Jewish Culture": A Community Emerges
3. From the Inexorable to the Ineffable: John Zorn's Kristallnacht and the Masada Project
4. Queer Dada Judaism: G-d Is My Co-Pilot and the "Inbetween Space"
5. Shelley Hirsch and Anthony Coleman: Music and Memory from the "Nowhere Place"
Epilogue
Notes
Bibliography
Index

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NEW YORK NOISE
Ethnomusicology
Multimedia
ETHNOMUSICOLOGY MULTIMEDIA ( EM ) is a collaborative publishing program, developed with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to identify and publish first books in ethnomusicology, accompanied by supplemental audiovisual materials online at www.ethnomultimedia.org .
A collaboration of the presses at Indiana and Temple universities, EM is an innovative, entrepreneurial, and cooperative effort to expand publishing opportunities for emerging scholars in ethnomusicology and to increase audience reach by using common resources available to the presses through support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Each press acquires and develops EM books according to its own profile and editorial criteria.
EM s most innovative features are its web-based components, which include a password-protected Annotation Management System ( AMS ) where authors can upload peer-reviewed audio, video, and static image content for editing and annotation and key the selections to corresponding references in their texts; a public site for viewing the web content, www.ethnomultimedia.org , with links to publishers websites for information about the accompanying books; and the Avalon Media System, which hosts video and audio content for the website. The AMS and website were designed and built by the Institute for Digital Arts and Humanities at Indiana University. Avalon was designed and built by the libraries at Indiana University and Northwestern University with support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The Indiana University Libraries host the website and the Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music ( ATM ) provides archiving and preservation services for the EM online content.
PROFILES IN POPULAR MUSIC
Jeffrey Magee and Felicia Miyakawa, editors
Unlocking the Groove: Rhythm, Meter, and Musical Design in Electronic Dance Music
Mark J. Butler
Neil Young and the Poetics of Energy
William Echard
Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity
Leigh H. Edwards
Jazzwomen: Conversations with Twenty-One Musicians
Wayne Enstice and Janis Stockhouse
Choro: A Social History of a Brazilian Popular Music
Tamara Elena Livingston-Isenhour and Thomas George Caracas Garcia
Radiohead and the Resistant Concept Album
Marianne Tatom Letts
Rush, Rock Music, and the Middle Class
Chris McDonald
Five Percenter Rap: God Hop s Music, Message, and Black Muslim Mission
Felicia M. Miyakawa
The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers: A Legacy in Country Music
Jocelyn R. Neal
Jethro Tull s Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play: Inside Two Long Songs
Tim Smolko
The Megamusical
Jessica Sternfeld
NEW YORK NOISE
RADICAL JEWISH MUSIC AND THE DOWNTOWN SCENE
TAMAR BARZEL
This book is a publication of
INDIANA UNIVERSITY PRESS
Office of Scholarly Publishing
Herman B Wells Library 350
1320 East 10th Street
Bloomington, Indiana 47405 USA
iupress.indiana.edu
Telephone 800-842-6796
Fax 812-855-7931
2015 by Tamar Barzel
All rights reserved
No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. The Association of American University Presses Resolution on Permissions constitutes the only exception to this prohibition.
The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of the American National Standard for Information Sciences-Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z 39.48-1992.
Manufactured in the United States of America
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Barzel, Tamar, author.
New York noise : radical Jewish music and the downtown scene / Tamar Barzel.
pages cm - (Ethnomusicology multimedia) (Profiles in popular music)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-253-01550-1 (cloth : alk. paper)
ISBN 978-0-253-01557-0 (paperback : alk. paper)
ISBN 978-0-253-01564-8 (eb)
1. Avant-garde (Music)-New York (State)-New York. 2. Jews-New York (State)-New York-Music-History and criticism. 3. Popular music-New York (State)-New York-1991-2000. I. Title. II. Series: Ethnomusicology multimedia. III. Series: Profiles in popular music.
ML 200.8. N 5 B 37 2015
780.89 92407471-dc23
2014027035
1 2 3 4 5 20 19 18 17 16 15
CONTENTS
Ethnomusicology Multimedia Series Preface
Acknowledgments
Introduction Radical Jewish Music in Manhattan
1 Jewish Music The Art of Getting It Wrong
2 Breaking a Thick Silence A Community Emerges
3 From the Inexorable to the Ineffable John Zorn s Kristallnacht and the Masada Project
4 Rethinking Identity G - d Is My Co-Pilot s Queer Dada Judaism
5 Shelley Hirsch and Anthony Coleman Music and Memory from the Nowhere Place
Epilogue
Notes
Sources
Index
ETHNOMUSICOLOGY MULTIMEDIA SERIES PREFACE
Each of the audio, video, or still image media examples listed below is associated with specific passages in this book, and each example has been assigned a unique Persistent Uniform Resource Locator, or PURL. The PURL identifies a specific audio, video, or still image media example on the Ethnomusicology Multimedia website, www.ethnomultimedia.org . Within the text of the book, a PURL number in parentheses functions like a citation and immediately follows the text to which it refers (e.g., PURL 3.1 refers to the first media example found in chapter 3 ).
To access all media associated with this book, readers must first create a free account by going to www.ethnomultimedia.org and clicking the Sign up for free link. Site visitors are also required to read and electronically sign an End Users License Agreement ( EULA ). Afterward, there are two ways to access audio, video, and still image media examples. In the search field, one may enter the name of the author to access a webpage with information about the book and author as well as a playlist of all media examples associated with the book. Or, to access a specific media example, the six-digit PURL identifier (the six digits located at the end of the full PURL address below) may be entered into the search field. The reader will then be taken to the web page containing that media example as well as a playlist of all the other media examples related to the book. Readers of the electronic edition of this book may simply click on the PURL address for each media example; once they have logged in to the Ethnomusicology Multimedia website, the live link will take them directly to the media example.
LIST OF PURLS
CHAPTER 1
PURL 1.1 . Verkl rte Kristallnacht. Gary Lucas, guitar. Berlin Jazz Festival, November 1988. Audio.
http://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/em/Barzel/910284
PURL 1.2 . The Golem (1920, dir. Paul Wegener and Carl Boese), with original solo guitar soundtrack; music by Gary Lucas and Walter Horn (10 min. excerpt). Video.
http://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/em/Barzel/910279
PURL 1.3 . Shelley Hirsch, I Am a Jew (1980). Shelley Hirsch, solo vocal and taped overdubs. On States (Tellus, 1997). Audio.
http://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/em/Barzel/910285
CHAPTER 2
PURL 2.1 . Shrek, Yo! I Killed Your God, early 1990s performance at the Knitting Factory. Marc Ribot (guitar and vocals), with Christine Bard (drums), Jim Pugliese (drums), Sebastian Steinberg (bass), and Chris Wood (guitar). On Marc Ribot: Descent into Baldness , directed and produced by Cassis Birgit Staudt and Joerg Soechting. Cassis Birgit Staudt and Joerg Soechting. http://www-marcribot-descentintobaldness.com . Video.
http://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/em/Barzel/910280
CHAPTER 3
PURL 3.1 . Alvin Curran, Crystal Psalms (New Albion Records, 1994). Excerpt. Audio.
http://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/em/Barzel/910286
CHAPTER 4
PURL 4.1 . G - d Is My Co-Pilot, Mi Yimalel on Mir Shlufn Nisht (1994). Sharon Topper, vocals; Craig Flanagin, guitar; Fred Lonberg-Holm, cello; Alex Klein, bass; Michael Evans, drums; Siobhan Duffy, drums. Arranged and produced by Craig Flanagin. Audio.
http://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/em/Barzel/910287
PURL 4.2 . G - d Is My Co-Pilot, Ha-Tikvah, on Mir Shlufn Nisht (Disk Union, 1994). Audio.
http://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/em/Barzel/910288
PURL 4.3 . Zadikov Workers Choir, Hay Naalayim (Joel Engel and Avigdor Hameiri), on Hayo Hayu Zmanim: Israeli Tunes of Yesteryear 1 (Hed-Artzi, 1960). Collection of the Dartmouth Jewish Sound Archive . Audio.
http://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/em/Barzel/910289
PURL 4.4 . G - d Is My Co-Pilot, B Nai! on Mir Shlufn Nisht (1994).
http://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/em/Barzel/910290
CHAPTER 5
PURL 5.1 . Shelley Hirsch, States , on Roulette TV (2001). Shelley Hirsch, solo vocal, with taped overdubs. Excerpt. Produced and directed by Jim Staley. Video.
http://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/em/Barzel/910281
PURL 5.2 . Hymie and Harry (0 00 to 0 36 ). Radio version of O Little Town of East New York (1992), commissioned by New American Radio. Text by Shelley Hirsch; music by Shelley Hirsch and David Weinstein. Shelley Hirsch. New American Radio and Performing Arts online archive . Audio.
http://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/em/Barzel/910291
PURL 5.3 . Confession Booth (6 39 to 7 28 ). Radio version of O Little Town of East New York (1992).
http://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/em/Barzel/910292
PURL 5.4 . 544 Hemlock Street (2 14 to 4 33 ). On O Little Town of East New York (1991), filmed on location at the Dance Theater Workshop. Text by Shelley Hirsch; music by Shelley Hirsch and David Weinstein; film and slides, Shelley Hirsch and Eric Muzzy; camera, Eric Muzzy; decor, Shelley Hirsch, Gail O Keefe, Liz Prince; costumes, Liz Prince; lighting, Lori Dawson; audio, Brooks Williams and David Weinstein. Video.
http://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/em/Barzel/910282
PURL 5.5 . Maria s House/The Troika (4 47 to 6 35 ). Radio version of O Little Town of East New York (1992). Audio.
http://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/em/Barzel/910293
PURL 5.6 . On the Far Reaches (22 33 to the end). Radio version of O Little Town of East New York (1992). Audio.
http://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/em/Barzel/910294
PURL 5.7 . The Jewish People (7 29 to 8 26 ). Radio version of O Little Town of East New York (1992). Audio.
http://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/em/Barzel/910295
PURL 5.8 . The Jewish People (20 56 to 21 58 ). On O Little Town of East New York (1991). Video.
http://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/em/Barzel/910283
PURL 5.9 . Anthony Coleman, Jevrejski by night. Live performance at Issue Project Room, Brooklyn (2005). Anthony Coleman, piano; Micha l Attias, saxophone, Marco Cappelli, guitar; Greg Cohen, contrabass; Fred Lonberg-Holm, cello; Jim Pugliese, percussion; Ted Reichman, accordion, Michael Sarin, percussion, Douglas Wieselman, clarinet, bass clarinet, guitar. Audio.
http://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/em/Barzel/910296
PURL 5.10 . Ben Goldberg Trio, Speech Communication: Anglais. Museum of Jewish Art and History, Paris, June 2010 (94 mins.). Ben Goldberg, clarinet; Greg Cohen, bass; Kenny Wolleson, drums.
Broadcast by Akadem.org . Video.
http://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/em/Barzel/910276
PURL 5.11 . Anthony Coleman, 8 Objectives: The Abysmal Richness of the Infinite Proximity of the Same. Live performance at Issue Project Room, Brooklyn (2005). Anthony Coleman, piano; Micha l Attias, saxophone, Marco Cappelli, guitar; Greg Cohen, contrabass; Fred Lonberg-Holm, cello; Jim Pugliese, percussion; Ted Reichman, accordion, Michael Sarin, percussion, Douglas Wieselman, clarinet, bass clarinet, guitar. Audio.
http://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/em/Barzel/910297
EPILOGUE
PURL E.1 . La Radical Jewish Culture, Paris Museum of Jewish Art and History, April 2010 (141 mins.). Tamar Barzel with Anthony Coleman, Mathias Dreyfuss, and Nico Schneider, translation.
Broadcast by Akadem.org . Video.
http://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/em/Barzel/910277
PURL E.2 . Ecouter le fl neur fl ner, Paris Museum of Jewish Art and History, April 2010 (13 mins.). Anthony Coleman, spoken introduction, piano and pre-recorded electronics, Ashley Paul, saxophone.
Broadcast by Akadem.org . Video.
http://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/em/Barzel/910278
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
I moved to New York City to begin the research that eventually led to this book more than a decade ago. As time has accrued so have the colleagues, friends, and family who have contributed in material, personal, and professional ways to the endeavor. In the chapters that follow, some of their contributions are more visible than others, but they are impossible to rank, and I can genuinely say that over and above all the contributions that I m grateful to be able to acknowledge here, there have been dozens of occasions for less official kinds of support-home-cooked meals, email exchanges, kind words, and phone conversations-that have been just as important.
None of this would have happened without my friend Mike Rahfaldt, who brought me the recording that led to this project. I would not have been able to see it through without financial support from the University of Michigan, whose generosity allowed me the great luxury of settling in my field site to do research and write almost full time. In its early stages, this project was supported by several fellowships, including a Rackham Predoctoral Fellowship, a Margaret Dow Towsley Scholarship from the Center for the Education of Women, and a stipend from the Rackham Interdisciplinary Institute. Good readers are hard to find, and I ve never had better ones than Paul Anderson and Travis Jackson. Thanks are also due to Jonathan Freedman and Sarah Blair for inviting me to contribute an article to the Michigan Quarterly Review , which was a first attempt to work out the ideas about the klezmer revival, and to Jonathan for his staunch support of my work since then. I owe special gratitude to Judith Becker for opening up new worlds in my thinking about music, for always knowing exactly which book I needed to read, and for her guidance in all things. Another heartfelt thank-you goes to Rich Crawford for all the years of collegiality, close reading, and fast friendship.
At Wellesley College I was supported by a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship, administered through the Department of Music, in 2004-2006. I thank the dean s office for research and travel support, which allowed me to present my work at conferences and funded my research trips to New York City, Paris, and Berlin, as well as for supporting my research leave in New York City in 2009-2010. Thanks also to all my colleagues in the department, who have been unstintingly generous and who it has been such a pleasure working with and getting to know over the years, including Gurminder Bhogal, Marion Dry, Isabel Fine, Charles Fisk, Claire Fontijn, Lisa Graham, Jenny Johnson, Cercie Miller, Paula Zeitlin, and many others; an extra helping of thanks goes to Martin Brody for his steadfast encouragement, wise counsel, and good cheer. I ve also benefited enormously from the assistance of music librarian Pam Bristah and the college library staff, who have found me copies of many difficult to access articles, scores, and books. Among my other colleagues on campus, I would like to thank in particular Carol Dougherty, whose kind invitation to sit on the Newhouse Advisory Board sparked all kinds of new connections, as well as Alice Friedman, Salem Mekuria, and Larry Rosenwald for their unwavering support; thanks also to Stanley Cheng, David Teng Olsen, and Peggy Levitt, whose invitation to present a paper at the Transnational Studies Initiative spurred me to develop many of the ideas about memory and place that found their way into chapter 5 . Fellow ethnomusicologists Kera Washington (at Wellesley) and Sandy Graham (at Babson College) have offered a particular kind of collegiality that only birds of a feather can provide. Finally, big thanks to Magdalen Christian, as well as the student assistants in the Music Office, who have helped out in so many ways and without whom none of this would be possible.
There are a few things in this book that happened only because of someone else s expertise. Kenny Freundlich and Jordan Tynes gave invaluable assistance with audio/video clips and the Kristallnacht waveform analysis, Joe Mulholland set the musical examples into Finale, and Maia Rusco and Emily Nice transcribed interviews. My thanks also go to Peter Stastny, Albert Thimann, and Eric Usner (who also provided translations from the German) for helping me to procure out-of-press recordings; to Yoav Weiss and Ofer Pasternak for help with the Hebrew; to my uncle and aunt Uri and Aviva Barzel for their kind hospitality in New York City and for connecting me with the Histadrut Ivrit; and to my uncle and aunt Raanan and Eva Barzel for hosting me so graciously in Paris and for hunting down a copy of Chantal Ackerman s Histoires d Amerique .
In New York City, I was a fellow for a semester at the Center for Jewish Leadership and Learning ( CLAL ) in Manhattan; thanks to CLAL and in particular to David Kraemer, now at the Jewish Theological Seminary, for his help in procuring the Gefen Haggadah, and to the archivists and staff at JTS for their help in tracking down bibliographic information for the song Halutz, Beneh. For helping to make fruitful professional connections of various kinds, I thank Ralph and Liz Alessi of the School for Improvisational Music. I was also in two writing groups in New York; for helping me to workshop my chapter drafts I thank my fellow ethno/musicologists Adriana Helbig, Lara Pellegrinelli, and Uli Sailer. I also learned a great deal from colleagues in my interdisciplinary writing group, whose work in music, art history, African American studies, Asian American studies, Jewish studies, gender studies, and literature gave me new perspectives that have all had a hand in shaping this book; thanks to all the kulturhedz , including Marion Jacobson, Nikki Stanton, Nick Syrett, Grace Wang, and Margie Weinstein. Thanks in particular to two friends from that group, Alisa Braun, for answering all my late night questions about Yiddish, and Libby Garland, for her great generosity and smart advice in reading drafts of the book through all its growing pains. There s no way either the book or I would be here without her.
During my research leave in New York City, I was lucky to work with Rabbi Ellen Lippmann and Cantor Lisa B. Segal, as well as the rest of the staff at synagogue Kolot Chayeinu in Brooklyn, which hosted the event featured in the book s epilogue, Practicing: A Concert and Conversation, in 2010; once again I thank Marc Ribot, who made the whole thing happen, as well as all the participating musicians for donating their energies to the discussion and the wonderful concert that followed. Mathias Dreyfuss, Rapha l Sigal, and Gabriel Siancas curated an excellent exhibit on RJC at the Paris Jewish Museum in 2010, shared the artist interviews they videotaped, and invited me to convene an event at the museum on which I draw in chapter 5 and the epilogue, and to which Anthony Coleman also generously contributed. Thanks in particular to Matthias for putting me in touch with Alexander Kluge and for answering a thousand questions, and to Marie Blanquet for making all the arrangements for the trip. At the Berlin Jewish Museum, where the exhibit traveled the following year, Marie Naumann invited me to contribute an article to the museum journal and went out of her way to share all kinds of useful information. Thanks are also due to Shula Reinharz and everyone at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute for the Study of Women and Gender, where I was a scholar-in-residence in the spring of 2012, and from which I also received a research award. It was a stroke of luck to find two simpatico fellow scholars in this program, entitled Jewish Women in the Arts. Dance historian Nina Spiegel and art historian Michelle Gewurtz shared their work with me and offered invaluable comments on mine, contributing insights in particular to the material that wound up in chapters 4 and 5. At the Journal of the Society for American Music , editor Leta Miller provided crucial feedback on an article in which I first explored the ideas about musical language that inform this book. In presenting aspects of my work in different forums, including the Society for American Music, the Society for Ethnomusicology, and the Society for Jewish History, I have received invaluable feedback from too many colleagues to name here, but for inviting me to present some of this research in its early stages I would like to thank George Lewis and Robert O Meally of the Columbia Jazz Studies Group; Judah Cohen, Mark Kligman, Michael Leavitt, and Jim Loeffler of the Jewish Music Forum at the Center for Jewish History ( CJH ); and the organizers of the conferences Makom III (in Potsdam), ReJewvenation (at the University of Toronto), and Improvising America (at the University of Kansas). For extending invitations more recently I thank Charles Carson and the Center for American Music (at the University of Texas, Austin) and Tony Michels and Hasia Diner of the Working Group for Jews in New York City (at the CJH ).
This book s website is supported by the Mellon-funded Ethnomusicology Multimedia project at Indiana University Press. I am grateful to all those who granted permission to include their work online, including Helen Thorington at New American Radio and Performing Arts, for sharing the radio version of O Little Town of East New York; Rachel Wetstein at Transcontinental Publishing for sharing the sheet music to Halutz, Beneh! and Alex Hartov and the Dartmouth Jewish Sound Archive for sharing the song s archival recording. Thanks to Mickael Bendavid and Sigalit Lavon at Akadem for sharing video footage from the Paris Jewish Museum; to Alvin Curran for sharing the audio from Crystal Psalms; to Jim Staley and Roulette Intermedia in New York City for sharing the video of Shelley Hirsch performing States; to Tanisha Jones at the New York Public Library, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, for her help procuring the video of O Little Town of East New York; to Beatta Wiggen and Alexander Kluge at DCTP television in Germany for sharing a video of Kristallnacht; to Gary Lucas for sharing his audio and video footage from The Golem , and WNYC for sharing the original audio; to Anthony Coleman for sharing recordings and scores; and to Cassis Staudt and Joerg Soechting in Berlin, as well as all the musicians involved, for sharing the footage from Descent into Baldness . The book is also enriched by the work of many photographers, including Laurent Baillet, Ya l Bitton, Michael Dorf, Scott Friedlander, Peter Gannushkin, Kevin Kolben, Ziga Koritnik, Martin Mooijman, Ben Rosengart, Dan Sagarin, and Daniel Sheehan.
It has been a pleasure working with everyone at Indiana University Press, from whom I have learned what a group effort it is to shepherd a book through the production process. Thanks in particular to my wonderful editor Raina Polivka for supporting the book from the outset, as well as to assistant editor Jenna Whittaker, copy editor Eric Schramm, production coordinator Dan Pyle, and project manager Darja Malcolm-Clarke. I am also grateful to the staff at IUP Ethnomusicology Multimedia project, including Mollie Ables and Allan Burdette, for their expertise and assistance. This book is much better than it would have been otherwise because of the careful attention given to the manuscript by Judah Cohen as well as another, anonymous, reader for the press. I am also grateful to all the people who took the time out of their busy schedules in the past year to read my manuscript, including Jonathan Freedman, Leta Miller, John Szwed, Sherrie Tucker, and Chris Washburne, along with a number of colleagues to whom I am particularly indebted for generous professional and material support, including Charles Hiroshi Garret, Mark Katz, Ingrid Monson, Carol Oja, and Kay Kaufman Shelemay.
Of course, this book s existence depends on the artists I ve met over the years, who have been unfailingly open to my work, giving me access to their rehearsals and performances, handing me concert programs they had saved and essays they had written, sharing unreleased recordings, and spending the time to talk about all of it, both in formal interviews and in many hours of conversation. Like these exchanges, not all of my interviews made it into the book directly, but they all contributed in crucial ways to my understanding of the downtown scene. On this front, I thank Joey Baron, Jim Black, Don Byron, Uri Caine, Greg Cohen, Matt Darriau, Michael Dorf, Dave Douglas, Mark Dresser, Bruce Gallanter, Vijay Iyer, David Krakauer, Alan Licht, Frank London, Jessica Lurie, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Roy Nathanson, Ted Reichman, Elliott Sharp, Brad Shepik, Matthew Shipp, Daniel Zamir, John Zorn, and an anonymous contributor. Thanks are due in particular to interviewees Anthony Coleman, Marty Ehrlich, Craig Flanagin, Shelley Hirsch, Gary Lucas, and Sharon Topper for so generously sharing their work, time, and ideas with me. I am also indebted to Marc Ribot for giving me his unpublished essays and all the concert programs he saved from the RJC years. All these artists invited me to attend their concerts free of charge, an offer I tried not to take them up on too often. (Zorn was the only one who was not willing to share his work for the book, but as of this writing most of it is readily available online.)
Writing a book, even one that involves talking to musicians and going out to hear them perform, turns out to be a pretty solitary business. I have had long stretches of hibernation when deadlines have taken precedence over almost everything else, but whenever I have reentered the land of the living, my friends and family have been standing by without a word of reproach. I can t thank you all enough-except to say that I couldn t have done any of it without you. And to my parents, who have been there for me in so many ways over the years, all my love.
NEW YORK NOISE
Introduction
Radical Jewish Music in Manhattan
THIS BOOK BEGAN WITH A GIFT, CASUALLY BESTOWED BY A friend who worked at our local record store. In those pre-Internet years, he had enviable access to all kinds of under-the-radar music, and I hardly knew what to make of this particular find: a CD entitled Jewish Alternative Movement: A Guide for the Perplexed (1998). 1 I was dimly aware of the Guide for the Perplexed , a medieval talmudic treatise with an amusingly modern name. But I was stumped by the phrase Jewish Alternative Movement. The liner notes to the recording told me that J.A.M . was a new imprint for recordings held by the Knitting Factory-the scrappy, subterranean club, familiarly known as The Knit, that was the nerve center of Manhattan s cutting-edge downtown music scene. In college in the 1980s, I had heard about an underground art world on New York s Lower East Side that was the stomping grounds for my most intimidatingly hip peers, known as PIB s-People in Black. But, as I had gathered in bits and pieces over the years since then, the downtown scene was far more than that. In fact, it was one of the most innovative and multifaceted art scenes of the twentieth century.
So many of the artists who had shocked me out of suburban malaise in high school-Talking Heads, Jim Jarmusch, the Ramones-were part of it. I didn t know quite what I was hearing, but when I slid my sister s Horses album out of its paper sleeve and onto the turntable, unleashing Patti Smith s punk anthem, Gloria, straight into our living room, I knew it was important. 2 What I was hearing, a decade after Smith and her cohort of poet-rockers had heralded the birth of punk rock at CBGB , was some New York Noise, a bit of DNA from the downtown music scene on Manhattan s Lower East Side. 3 By the 1980s, that neighborhood had become a kind of open-air lab for creative misfits of all stripes. It drew together experimentally inclined musicians with varied backgrounds, in jazz and free improvisation, garage rock, blues, and classical composition, who were intent on the unlikely prospect of bringing all these idioms into dialogue. A boundary-pushing American original, the multifaceted downtown scene attracted its share of hangers-on, but it also pulsed with ideas and energy, and its influence resonates loudly in contemporary jazz, popular music, and film soundtracks. To borrow a phrase coined by Bob Dylan, it was a place for musical expeditionaries, restless seekers open to influence from any quarter-or almost any. As far as I knew, Jewish music had no place on New York s downtown scene, and so Guide for the Perplexed was a puzzle. The Knit s graffiti-laden walls were no doubt imbued with layers of meaning, but the club struck me as an odd place to invoke the Talmud, an ancient compendium of Jewish law and commentary. In fact, the band names and song titles on Guide for the Perplexed -Hasidic New Wave, Hanukkah Bush-made me wonder whether the recording was a joke. But when I listened to the music, it was impressive, daring, and polished. I couldn t yet parse out all its idioms-neo-klezmer, hardcore and acid rock, neo-Yiddish cabaret, free verse, free jazz, and electronic sound canvases-but I could tell it was something , and I wanted to know more. I said my goodbyes, packed up a moving truck, and drove to New York City to find some answers.
As I discovered soon after arriving in the summer of 2000, the Knit had recently hosted a spate of themed concerts, public Passover seders, and other events that drew on the unconventional, Jewishly identified music that downtown experimentalists had been producing over the past several years. Guide for the Perplexed was a musical sampler from that period. And the phrase Jewish Alternative Movement ( J.A.M. ) made a statement about the new sense of purpose shared by artists who until that point had not seen their Jewish identities as particularly relevant to their creative work. I learned that J.A.M . (which sometimes turned up in an alternate format, Jewish Avant-Garde Music ) had been modeled on another rubric, one that ultimately had a more lasting impact on the downtown music scene and on American music as a whole. That rubric, Radical Jewish Music, was coined in the 1990s by saxophonist John Zorn, a prominent composer on the downtown scene, who was also central to the outpouring of creativity I explore in this book.
The downtown music world was actually a crisscrossing network of different music scenes. One of those scenes consisted of artists with diverse musical backgrounds who aimed to bridge their stylistic differences. By coming together in varied formations to perform, write, and improvise, they ultimately developed a flexible, multifaceted musical language that, while drawing on a legion of influences, was also strikingly original. Zorn and his circle of frequent collaborators were central participants in this collective project. Many of them were Jewish, and in the 1990s they ventured into new creative territory. How, they wondered, could they write new music that was Jewishly identified and yet also in keeping with their other work-unconventional, experimentalist, and with wide-ranging musical influences? This seemingly straightforward question proved to have surprisingly complicated implications about the nature of Jewish music and identity. Although these artists could look to colleagues who, in other times and places, had sought ways to consider culture and heritage through music, there was no simple way to map that work onto the process of bringing both things Jewish and things down-townish into dialogue. This book chronicles the roughly six-year period during which downtown artists grappled most intensively with the work of writing music that was both experimental and Jewishly relevant, during what I call the Radical Jewish Culture moment. 4
In September 1992, Zorn had curated what became that moment s signal event, the Festival for Radical New Jewish Culture, a weekend of concerts, films, and readings in Munich. By now this festival may be best known for its premiere of Kristallnacht , Zorn s programmatic chamber piece, which commemorated the Nazi-orchestrated anti-Jewish riots of 1938. But for many artists, the festival was also a personal and cultural milestone. It represented a pivotal opportunity for mutual recognition about an aspect of identity whose significance, and indeed existence, had so far gone largely unacknowledged in their creative lives. The festival was followed by a flurry of activity. For the next half-decade, musicians presented their new work at annual RJC festivals, most organized by Zorn, each with several days of themed programming. 5 Zorn, who tried out a few versions of his defining rubric, finally settled on Radical Jewish Culture (hereafter RJC ) with the establishment of his record label, Tzadik (Hebrew for righteous man), in 1995. Knitting Factory founder Michael Dorf, who had begun producing annual klezmer festivals at the club in 1990 and releasing neo-klezmer recordings soon thereafter, followed suit in 1997 by inaugurating the J.A.M . imprint on Knitting Factory Records as an umbrella for that label s Jewishly themed releases, which included Guide for the Perplexed . 6 Tzadik s RJC series ultimately dwarfed J.A.M . in scope. Intending to spark a body of Jewish music beyond klezmer, Zorn has expanded that series into a catalog with around 200 Jewish-themed releases to date. Indeed, with RJC only one series in Tzadik s diverse library, the label has established itself as a major presence in the landscape of adventuresome new music.
The festivals, the record label, and the shared energy that sprang up around the rubric Radical Jewish Culture have led some observers to call RJC a movement. Participating artists have sometimes objected to this description, as it implies that RJC was a widespread effort with shared political aims. Although some artists had political ambitions for RJC , it was ultimately a creative phenomenon with social implications and not a political or social movement. Nevertheless, artists found RJC immensely important for being, in clarinetist Marty Ehrlich s words, an open space, and in many ways a safe space in the sense of having the support of one s friends colleagues, to explore express these artistic leanings [whether] in a straightforward, or in a deconstructive, way. 7 If RJC was not a movement per se, it was nevertheless a collective endeavor that crackled with social and creative electricity. It gave artists a platform for staging an urgent confrontation between two fundamentally important aspects of their lives, Jewish heritage and creative voice, which had heretofore felt disconnected. That confrontation was at its most intense during its first few years, when it spilled out of the musical realm and into the discursive one, resulting in the rich body of writings and conversation I explore in these pages. Rather than movement, then, I have settled on moment as the best term to describe the phenomenon that is my book s subject.
RJC s impact did not end in 1998; to the contrary, a great deal of interesting music emerged over the next decade and continues to do so. Why, then, identify 1992-1998 as the RJC moment? Above all, I focus on these years because of the potent blend of music, writing, and talk that characterized the artistic production of radical Jewish music during this time. Artists produced provocative new work while engaging discursively with the personal and conceptual issues it raised. And they were acutely thoughtful theorists of their own cultural moment. From their unique vantage point at the fringe of mainstream music but the vanguard of American experimentalism, downtown artists contributed in innovative and profound ways to the language of, and the discourse around, contemporary Jewish music and identity.
In its mode of spirited exchange, the downtown scene was heir to the culture of talk that historian Christine Stansell describes as central to the hurly-burly of Eastern European and Russian Jewish bohemian culture on the early twentieth-century Lower East Side. 8 The scene s talkiness spurred artists to develop their ideas about RJC in tandem with each other, enacting a kind of community-wide call-and-response. Sometimes acrimonious and often exhilarating, this dynamic conversational milieu led artists to hone their thinking about the purpose and meaning of RJC . The work they subsequently developed, in both music and writing, offers a signal contribution to Jewish arts and letters. To be sure, artists involved in the U.S. klezmer revival, which began in the 1970s and grew in scope and momentum through the heyday of RJC , had preceded RJC in addressing similar questions about Jewish identity and contemporary music, and in some ways the RJC moment functioned as an extension of ideas klezmer revivalists had already proposed. Downtown artists who led neo-klezmer bands, including clarinetist David Krakauer and trumpeter Frank London of the Klezmatics, were key participants in the RJC moment as well. But because of their stubborn adherence to the principle of grounding new Jewish music in the experimental language special to their milieu-and not in klezmer-the artists on whom I have chosen to focus took their own music and discussions into new territory. Jewish identity and heritage, for these artists, was as malleable and multifarious as their musical idiom, and experimental music, which had once seemed to exist at a reasonable and natural remove from Jewish heritage, could be pushed to give expression to contemporary Jewish experience in unprecedented ways. Because each artist insisted on articulating a radically personal Jewish musical voice, what emerged from their enterprise was a newly articulated sense of both Jewishness and experimental music, with each helping to constitute the other. Their new music was idiosyncratic, to be sure, but it is this very trait that allows their work to intervene provocatively into the broader relationship, beyond the RJC moment, between contemporary Jewish identity and musical aesthetics.
Coming of Age in New York City
This book is based on nearly a decade of interactions with musicians in New York City, first when I was completing the main research in 2000-2004, and then, after I moved to Boston, during shorter visits a few times a year until 2009-2010, when I returned to the city for another long stay. Like other ethnomusicologists based in urban centers, in my fieldwork I traversed not only live performances but also pre-concert rehearsals and post-concert hangouts in diners and living rooms, coffee shops and street corners. I listened intensively to commercial recordings and dug up those that were out of press, as well as audio and video recordings that had never been released. Systematic collections of music and materials from the downtown scene are still scarce, and so from artists contributions I amassed my own archive, a unique collection of documents that includes unpublished essays, concert programs, home recordings, and other ephemera. As an amateur pianist among professional musicians, I deepened my personal involvement in my field site not as a performer but as an interlocutor-as a lucky participant, that is, in the scene s spirited conversational community. Over the years, my conversations and social interactions with artists added depth and texture to the formal interviews I recorded and transcribed. Along with artists original writing and music, these interviews, in which my interlocutors share thoughts that are heartfelt, witty, and intellectually dazzling, lie at the heart of this book s narrative and analysis.
Doing fieldwork on the downtown scene raises interesting questions about the nature of representation in ethnographic research. One of the aims of ethnomusicology is to privilege what anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously called local knowledge, attending to the way cultural insiders use, derive meaning from, and theorize local musics. 9 To represent a musical community from an insider s perspective is to go a long way toward representing it fairly, and many classic ethnographic monographs are based around a community whose shared aesthetics and creative principles also serve as a unifying focus for the published ethnography. 10 Since the 1980s, with the onset of postcolonial studies and the expansion of fieldwork into culturally diverse, transnational, and urban settings, ethnomusicologists have interrogated conventions of representation, which had developed originally in response to relatively homogenous communities, by addressing issues of cultural heterogeneity, social hierarchy and power, insider/outsider dynamics, personal taste, and conflicting narratives about musical meaning. The downtown scene presents its own peculiar challenge to the question of how best to represent a musical community. Although it is, on one hand, a tightly integrated creative scene with shared aesthetics, practices, and principles-a shared musical culture-on the other hand, iconoclasm is one of its bedrock principles, pushing against notions of community and mutual intelligibility. What exemplifies the musical culture of the downtown scene, in other words, is an understanding that although there are undoubtedly shared aims and practices, no single musician s voice can or should be taken to represent the whole. Indeed, creative entropy and cohesiveness were in constant play on the downtown scene. It was made up of dissident, sometimes uncompromising personalities who were focused on developing their own work and careers. But composer/improvisers also operate in a medium that depends on communication, one in which ideas are fostered collaboratively, and one that promises artists a unique kind of mutual creative development they could not achieve alone. That tension is at play in this book, which addresses the concerns that shaped the scene as a whole while attending to the stubbornly distinctive, sometimes conflicting perspectives of its individual participants.
As intellectually engaged as artists were during the RJC moment, they were also absorbed in their immediate work, and for the most part they were more intent on articulating their own ideas than in stepping back to assess RJC as a whole. I have taken on that role in this book, framing the RJC moment with a wide lens, contextualizing it both as part of the larger downtown music world and in regard to its historical moment, and tracing the themes that run through the music and the discourse that surrounded it. Thus, before turning to closely engage the work and ideas of four artists who contributed in distinctive ways to the RJC idea-Zorn, vocalist Sharon Topper with her queercore No Wave band G - d Is My Co-Pilot, vocalist Shelley Hirsch, and pianist Anthony Coleman-the book tells the story of the RJC moment: how and why it emerged when it did, and how it was shaped by its unique creative context.
Like the scene itself, the nature of these artists creative work presented me with an interesting methodological challenge. Improvisation being central to their craft, downtown artists never perform one piece in the same way twice, and much of their music is never recorded or commercially released. Indeed, both in regard to developing a full appreciation for the music and in order to build the relationships with musicians that led them to talk freely with me, it was crucial for my research (not to mention a privilege and pleasure) to hear these musicians perform live, regularly and in varied contexts. However, downtown artists also release recordings. Like written musical scores, recordings of improvised music assume the function of primary texts, and, like photographs, they are not simply objective representations of past events but rather unique sonic objects in their own right. Whether based on in-studio performances or live concert tapes, professionally engineered recordings are carefully crafted works of art, and in choosing to write about music in detail, I have turned to recordings as the objects of analysis rather than relying on my impressions of live performances. Nevertheless, each piece of music has a much wider and more varied scope than any one recording can suggest. My understanding of their recorded work is informed by my years of immersion in the scene, but there is no doubt that to analyze these artists recordings closely is to address only one facet of their creative output.
Live performances, of course, are also inflected by physical and social context in a way that recordings are not. My experience of attending performances transformed my sense of what the downtown scene was about, creatively and socially, a sense that has fed back into how I apprehend recordings of music that came out of the scene. Most important was the way in which built space and social mores acted mutually, if subtly, to bolster the sense that audience and artists were collectively involved in the musical performance. Although I attended some formal shows in concert halls, including Merkin Concert Hall and the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center, I usually found myself at small downtown clubs or other intimate venues without much distance between performers and audiences, including the Knit, Tonic, ABC No Rio, Roulette, Issue Project Room, and CB s Gallery. 11 Many of the shows I attended were filled to capacity, and in addition to simply being in close proximity to other audience members, my sense of being part of a whole was heightened by the nature of these spaces, where audience members usually sat or stood on a level floor rather than in raked seating, so that the audience was either below the stage, in which case we were collectively looking up, or on the same level as the musicians, an arrangement that created a kind of implicit social leveling for the duration of the performance. Second, although at clubs like the Knit and Tonic, there would sometimes be a low-level hum at the bar or some talking near the back of the room, for the most part once a performance began, audiences were wholly attentive. There would usually be applause after a musician s solo, and individuals might voice appreciation through an All right! or a Yeah! but otherwise audiences seemed to share in a social compact, rarely broken, to focus quietly on the musical performance. (Most shows I attended were either unamplified or would not have been loud enough to cut through crowd noise, with some notable exceptions, including an ear-splitting tenth anniversary reprise of Zorn s Kristallnacht at Tonic in 2002.) Casual interactions between performers and audience members also suggested that concerts were shared social endeavors. Particularly at Tonic, a club that by the early 2000s had supplanted the Knit as the central musical hub of the downtown scene, artists almost always stayed onstage after the show to speak with a coterie of fans, sometimes mingled with friends and colleagues in the crowd, and could often be seen making plans to go around the corner for a late night meal. While the relaxed social mien of these shows made it easy for me to meet and talk with musicians, I also understood that what I was witnessing at the clubs was tied to the scene s special kind of interrelatedness. The music that emerged from the downtown scene was contingent on social intermingling and a sense of shared purpose-between performers and audiences at concerts, but also in the creative community as a whole. A map tracing the varied creative collaborations among downtown artists on a single recording would be a messy one indeed. The recordings I discuss should thus be considered as unique but not isolated musical works, as they were suspended in the same creative webs and contingent upon the same social relationships that constituted the scene as a whole.
It was through the twinned processes of collaboration and after-hours social interaction that downtown artists shaped RJC into an unruly collective concept. The Jewishly identified work that ensued differed dramatically from most of the other Jewish music of their era. Chapter 1 addresses the question of how to conceptualize that work, with attention to ethnomusicologist Philip Bohlman s formulation of the narratives that contemporary audiences and artists have often constructed in order to make sense of their relationship to new Jewish music. One of these narratives, which hinges on the idea of getting Jewish music right, was also at work in the U.S. klezmer revival, and it serves as a key foil for the most provocative work of the RJC moment. I propose the notion of getting Jewish music wrong in order to get it right as a critical lens through which to make sense of RJC , an idea I elaborate through an exploration of Zorn s Zohar (1995), an ersatz archival recording of cantorial music, whose creative content is inseparable from its apparent flaws and fakery. 12
As performers, downtown s composer/improvisers were in the public eye, with jazz and rock as models. Whether in the commercial mainstream or on its fringes, Jewish performers in those idioms had rarely been vocal about their heritage. Chapter 2 brings into view the complicated social and historical dynamics that contributed to a similar quietness around Jewish heritage among downtown musicians, illuminating how the gender and race dynamics prevalent in rock and jazz at mid-century played a key part in determining downtown artists relegation of Jewish identity to the private sphere. Many had strong personal senses of Jewish identity, but they expressed that identity most freely in a personal and familial context, rather than making it part of their social lives on the scene or their public personae as performers. This quietness prefigured the surprising intensity of the Munich festival and the RJC moment.
Amidst the outpouring of talk, writing, and music of that moment, Zorn was not one of its most active discussants, but he was undoubtedly RJC s main protagonist and most prolific composer, and he has remained its central figure to the present day. Chapter 3 uses close readings of Zorn s seven-movement tone poem, Kristallnacht , and three versions of the piece Idalah-Abal from the Masada songbook-Zorn s book of several hundred original pieces, which he arranges for his various Masada ensembles-to address his compositional vision for RJC . These pieces suggest the counterintuitive arc of Zorn s project, which now spans two decades, of developing a new oeuvre of Jewish music. Kristallnacht took as its impetus a terrible moment in Jewish history, the Nazi-orchestrated anti-Jewish pogroms of November 1938, but in his subsequent Masada project, Zorn developed work that, through sound and iconography, retreated from historical particularity. His Jewishly identified work thus took shape through a hyperreal intensity, but it ultimately attained a mystical remove. Underlying this shift were Zorn s convictions about the artist as outsider and mystic, notions he presented in both Kristallnacht and Masada as closely allied with Jewish identity and history. The musical terms, concepts, and notated examples in this discussion will be more accessible to specialists than to general readers, but I have balanced my musical analysis with close readings of Zorn s images, packaging choices, and iconography, which Zorn himself cites as crucial to his creative concept.
On the multifarious downtown scene, there were as many readings of Jewish identity as there were artists to engage it. Chapter 4 focuses on one of the most provocative contributors to this conversation, the No Wave band G - d Is My Co-Pilot, or GodCo. With an emphasis on anti-virtuosity and rawness, 1980s No Wave repudiated the polished genre dubbed New Wave, which had emerged out of the Lower East Side s underground rock scene of the 1970s. During the RJC moment, this slyly subversive No Wave band changed the spelling of God in its name to G - d, in a nod to the traditional Jewish proscription against fully writing out the name of the deity, lest it be accidentally erased; but as G - dCo the band presented Jewish songs in a decidedly non-traditional mien. In collaboration with Craig Flanagin-the band s co-leader, arranger, and main songwriter-lead singer Sharon Topper enacted a queer and musically radical subject position through her vocal stylings, self-presentation, album art, and, for G - dCo s Jewish-themed concerts, elaborate hand-drawn pamphlets. Postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha s notion of the in-between space has proved fruitful for scholars of gender and sexuality, contemporary popular music and identity, and I draw on it here to illuminate the intriguing ideas about Jewish identity and inauthenticity that lay behind the band s studied artlessness.
The concept of the lieu de memoire (memory place) plays an important role in the klezmer literature, but RJC has sometimes been characterized as a rootless music without memory. Unlike the music of the klezmer revival, RJC s critics tended to frame it as culturally unmoored and lacking in historical resonance. As I explore in chapter 5 , such characterizations of cultural rootlessness link to negative assessments of schizophonia -the term proposed by composer R. Murray Schafer for the separation of a sound from its source-and its role in contemporary Jewish music. In this chapter I address work by two artists, Shelley Hirsch and Anthony Coleman, work that is notable precisely because it engages the emotional ambivalence and frayed historical connections that have led some observers to dismiss RJC as cursorily Jewish and thus insubstantial. Even as these artists turned their attention to the Jewishly powerful meanings that lie in personal memory, their music trafficked in pluralistic references and non-tonal abstraction. Indeed, it was through privileging such sounds and techniques that they were able to shape the RJC moment into a special kind of Jewish memory site.
Through their subjective and quirkily creative forays into the territory of memory, downtown artists added a new dimension to the notion of Jewishly usable music: such music, they contended, could usefully reflect imperfect cultural transmission, cultural and national in-betweenness, or simply personal ambivalence. Although such ideas went against the grain of trends in contemporary Jewish music, these artists were not alone in this enterprise. In fact, they were the contemporaries of a new generation of writers among whom similar ideas were brewing, and who have been bent since then on expanding the purview of Jewish American fiction along similar lines. In a sense, the music of the RJC moment functioned as a rejoinder to the work of Philip Roth and other American novelists who had probed the condition of postwar American Jewish life, summoning into collective awareness both our disconnection from the little secrets of the shadowed past and the inadequacies . . . discontinuities and incoherencies that inhere in postwar Jewish American subjectivity. 13 The kind of humorous, self-excoriating, and sophisticated investigation into Jewish American experience that typified Roth s writing, and the explosions in syntax and narrative propriety of twentieth-century American arts and letters at large, offered downtown artists an intriguing glimpse of the path their radical Jewish music might take. Indeed, although the 1990s represent an unusually rich flowering of ideas, as I discuss in an epilogue, long after the RJC s moment s collective intensity had waned, downtown musicians continued mulling over questions about the nature of Jewish identity, the shape of Jewish heritage, and how both might relate to their particular kind of pluralistic musical experimentalism. This book, then, offers a chronicle of the RJC moment, delves critically into the music and ideas that constituted it, and considers RJC s lasting presence in the musical and cultural landscape, both in New York City and elsewhere.
Jewishly Secular Subversives
The RJC moment gave voice to a twentieth-century Jewish American community that has received little scholarly attention. This is hardly surprising, as that community began to recognize itself as Jewish only in the mid-1990s. Downtown artists involved in the RJC moment had different relationships to religious practice and different levels of Jewish education, strongly felt Jewish identities but loosely personalized relationships to traditional religious worship and observance. Of course, the notion that Jewish practice is subject to highly personal interpretation was in line with their global stance toward American culture, and American music, at large. Most had grown up during the 1960s and were part of a cohort that was ready to subvert any aspect of American life, including American Jewish life, with which they disagreed. Yet, although the art scene in which they found a creative home was surely a secular one, the term secular, which is useful in describing most of my interlocutors to some extent, falls short in other ways. 14 Jewishly secular is perhaps a more appropriate term to describe these artists, many of whom have not only written Jewishly identified music, but also gather on Jewish holidays, read widely in Jewish literature, and have given their children Jewish educations. But no matter what their relationship to Jewish identity and practice, if they were to make Jewishly identified music under the rubric of RJC , it would have to resonate with their creative concerns as downtown experimentalists. During the RJC moment, they consequently became interested in the work of Jewish artists and thinkers who had preceded them in mapping out related terrain.
To place RJC in a wider context of American Jewish history, we need to frame its musicians as heirs to the multitude of artists whose work informed the downtown scene. As part a new cohort of creative renegades on the scene, artists downtown looked to both like-minded contemporaries and predecessors in order to build intellectual biographies that spoke to them as strongly as their putatively inherited ones. That cohort included jazz musicians, and particularly artists in the jazz avant-garde, who inhabited a narrow and professionally precarious cultural margin but insisted on the viability of their radical creative ideas. Iconoclastic classical composers, including high modernists and Cageian experimentalists, were another creative touchstone. Downtown artists also understood their work, and their own peripheral cultural position, as affiliated with that of the social outcasts who had developed underground rock and proto-punk in the 1960s-including Velvet Underground founder Lou Reed, who startled his downtown colleagues by appearing at the Munich festival for Radical New Jewish Culture in 1992-followed by punk rock a decade later. The advent of RJC spurred artists to consider their own creative biographies in a way they had not done before-that is, to recover an intellectual tradition of creative Jewish subversives. In this sense they were taking up an old practice of Jewish self-fashioning -one ascribed, for example, to the nineteenth-century philosopher Solomon Maimon, who in his autobiography crafted [a] narrative to his key Jewish intellectual antecedents. 15 For downtown artists those antecedents included figures from the Beat Generation: visual artist Wallace Berman, whose work Zorn has memorialized in his live score to Berman s film, Aleph; comedian Lenny Bruce, whom Coleman has cited as a model for his own conception of RJC ; and poet Allen Ginsberg, whom guitarist Marc Ribot and other downtown musicians accompanied on spoken-word recordings in the 1990s. 16 In musicians interviews and discussions about RJC , a panoply of other figures emerge as well: Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Paul Celan, Heinrich Heine, Jacques Derrida. Downtown artists might well have engaged some of these figures without the advent of RJC . But with it, the possibility emerged that thinkers and artists who, from one perspective, populate the margins of Jewish culture, might be understood as central to an alternative kind of Jewish tradition-one with which downtown artists qua artists could closely identify and to which they might have something unique to contribute. Through their involvement with RJC , then, artists inserted themselves into a discursive tradition of Jewish thinkers and artists, each of whom had created work that articulated ideas with a critical bearing on modern Jewish subjectivity at a particular cultural and historical juncture. The main work of the RJC moment was to add to this legacy by refracting into music their own idiosyncratic subject positions, as Jews, Americans, and musicians.
Was the music of the RJC moment-particularly at its most abstract and esoteric- Jewish music ? Given the geographic reach and complex history of Jewish people, that deceptively simple phrase calls for a multi-faceted definition. Indeed, defining any musical genre, particularly one preceded by a national modifier, is a tricky proposition. Definition implies succinctness and clear boundaries, whereas phrases such as American music or Jewish music are oversimplified conveniences, gesturing toward a messy range of musics that refuse to be easily contained. If Jewish can be a religious, ethnic, cultural, or national descriptor, with a great deal of variation within each of those categories, then it is hardly surprising that, as ethnomusicologist Edwin Seroussi remarks, ever since the concept of Jewish music emerged in the late nineteenth century, all attempts to define it have faced many difficulties. 17 But as with other such rubrics, rather than defining Jewish music narrowly, ethnomusicologists have conceptualized it as a network of interrelated musical practices and genres that either (a) incorporate Jewishly referential material, including texts in Hebrew, Yiddish, or Ladino, references to those texts, and melodies associated with Jewish liturgy, whatever their original (or earliest known) source; or (b) have a social function in a Jewish community, broadly defined.
If a music s social function is contingent upon its uses and meanings within a community, scholars of Jewish music have recently turned to the notion of usability, which links to the aesthetic preferences of individual artists while also suggesting a self-conscious, quintessentially modern preoccupation of grappling with the nature of Jewish art. 18 Although they did not define it in these terms, downtown artists were concerned with the notion of developing a Jewishly usable aesthetic in music. However, they differed from most artists who had come before them in positing just what constituted usability-in regard to their personal preferences, to the nature of Jewish music, and to the question of the social, emotional, and conceptual work to which their own experimental music was best suited. Artists involved in RJC sought, first, to write music that manifested their many creative fidelities. Jewish identity was one piece in the pluralistic puzzle of their American identities, and if their music were not usable on this front, then it would not be Jewishly usable either. Second, they conceived usability in relation to their own creative processes. That is, if things Jewish-whether memories, texts, or melodies-were usable to them as artists, this would be because engaging those things led to interesting new work that could not have been created otherwise. Artists were less concerned with whether their audiences would draw from the end result exactly what they had drawn from the act of composing and performing the music. It was in this very quality, in the ability of music-particularly experimental music-to function as an open text, that it became usable as art. Indeed, for some artists, Jewishly usable art might very well have an esoteric or conceptual connection to its Jewish sources or inspirations. Whether artists conceived their music s Jewish usability as contingent upon a pluralistic creative purview, as deriving from a highly personal creative process, or as resting on a deliberately unstable ontological foundation, the music of the RJC moment demands our attention-not because it solves the conundrum of how to define Jewish music, but because it changes the nature of the question. In the process of grappling with the issue of how to use experimentalist musical resources to engage with Jewish heritage, downtown artists opened up new avenues for conceptualizing Jewish music itself. It is no accident that this particular intervention into the nature of Jewish music s usability developed among artists involved with New York s downtown music scene. Understanding the RJC moment involves delving into the downtown scene s defining social and creative qualities. Those qualities, which emerged out of the neighborhood s unique history, illuminate why RJC emerged when and where it did.
The Downtown Scene: A Creative Ecosystem
Manhattan s Lower East Side has long been a magnet for musical iconoclasts, and it has served as a crucible for many signal developments in American expressive culture. So many boldface names in twentieth-century music and art have been based there that even a partial lexicon quickly becomes a long list: Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Byrne, Ornette Coleman, Philip Glass, Jim Jarmusch, Meredith Monk, Nam June Paik, Steve Reich, Patti Smith. Now a gentrifying enclave, like so many New York City neighborhoods the Lower East Side has shifted through multiple identities. Representatives of its many pasts-as a crowded immigrant quarter, a multifaceted Latin music scene, a political hotbed, and an artists haven-now share the sidewalks with residents of its gleaming luxury apartments. 19 For most of its history it was an embattled neighborhood, and in the 1970s it became a desperate one, as an economic crisis and city budget cuts led to crumbling storefronts, gang warfare, and a rampant drug and sex trade. In some ways, the neighborhood s dire circumstances fueled its creative vitality. Lax city oversight spurred a wave of activism from Latino residents, who developed a public murals project and chartered a new cultural center with an art gallery and auditorium. 20 Abandoned buildings, convenient spots for illicit activity, also meant that rents were low and studio space cheap. Successive waves of artists followed, setting up shop in unheated lofts, which doubled as makeshift galleries and rehearsal spaces. By the late twentieth century, the Lower East Side was home to one of the most dynamic creative communities in the United States.
Alongside its vibrant visual arts, theater, and dance scenes, the area included an ever-diversifying music scene-or rather an overlapping series of sub-scenes that included jazz and free improvisation, punk rock, and contemporary classical composition, and whose practitioners got to know each other and each other s music through concerts, collaborations, and after-hours hangouts at local bars and restaurants, which were havens of warmth and camaraderie during New York s freezing winters. With converted industrial lofts well suited to the needs of improvising musicians, the Lower East Side had been a vital center for jazz since the 1960s. As evidenced by a recent spate of commemorative activities around the club CBGB -including a display of its toilets at the Metropolitan Museum-punk rock and its pop-friendly sister New Wave were both born on the gritty Lower East Side of the 1970s, followed soon thereafter by No Wave, punk s avant-garde incarnation. 21 During the same period, contemporary concert music-New Music-had a strong presence downtown, anchored by composers whose work was an uneasy fit with the high-modernist uptown schools cultivated at Columbia and Princeton. The Lower East Side offered something special to jazz musicians, punk rockers, and classical composers alike, but if the neighborhood s plentiful studio space gave musicians the opportunity to work together on a dizzying variety of projects, professional venues and paying gigs were scarce. 22 Just a few commercial venues fueled downtown s main musical sub-scenes. Philosopher Bernard Gendron has chronicled four venues that served the three primary streams of the 1970s downtown music world: the Mercer Arts Center and CBGB (punk rock); Studio RivBea (loft jazz); and the Kitchen (experimental concert music). 23 As a new cohort of artists began convening downtown in the 1970s and 1980s, their work developed into a fourth stream, whose primary venue was to be the Knitting Factory. When the RJC idea emerged in the 1990s, it was carried along by that fourth stream, whose composer/improvisers drew fluently on idioms from across the downtown music world.
Amidst all these influences, jazz gave the downtown music scene its central creative model, that of the composer/improviser, and provided its central creative tenet, that of developing a personal voice that was at once compositional and performative. Of course, composer/improvisers of the late twentieth century draw on multiple sources, and when addressing the value they place on originality or individualized language it can be difficult to separate jazz s influence from that of other idioms, particularly the classical avant-garde, where individuality and the search for new language are also essential values. Indeed, the artists I discuss often mention modernist composers when they talk about their strongest influences. But despite sharing common interests with classical composers, downtown artists are beholden to their local scene precisely because it offers them, as composer/improvisers, something different from the classical paradigm.
In the United States, the art of composition/improvisation is tied up closely with the history of jazz, a genre that has expanded to include music that, although it may not sound like straight-ahead jazz, shares many of the genre s performance practices and values. Paramount among these values is an emphasis on personal voice. As bassist Mark Dresser explained, emphasizing jazz s significance among his diverse musical experiences, I ve had a kind of a typical American musical performance experience as a bass player, having played everything from European classical music, professionally, to having grown up playing folk music, to playing rock and roll [and] Latin jazz. And believing the whole time that . . . the challenge and the gift and the lesson of jazz was to be yourself, and find your own voice [and] language. . . . Not trying to be a stylist, [not trying] to do something that s been done. But trying to find one s own music. 24 The multifaceted notion of personal voice in jazz includes an individual performer s sound-distinctive timbres, articulations, inflections, and phrasing. In regard to preparing and performing jazz improvisations, personal voice denotes elements that are conventionally considered compositional, such as melody, harmony, and motivic development. And the notion also encompasses a jazz artist s ideas as an author of original music in the fully traditional sense, as a composer of written music outside the context of a performance. The aim of seeking out one s own original voice, so central to jazz, had important consequences for RJC . As we will see in the chapters that follow, during the RJC moment downtown composer/improvisers were willing to push that concept to its limit, chancing unintelligibility in the service of writing highly personal music.
The notion of personal voice in jazz also had a crucial valence during the RJC moment in that it gave artists a mandate to develop Jewishly identified work that, like jazz, was simultaneously sui generis and historically grounded. 25 Jazz improvisers use practices of signification-musical commentary linked to the African American expressive practice of signifying-to articulate a personal, sometimes contentious, but always historically aware relationship with jazz tradition. 26 It is this dynamic that has led scholars to understand jazz as an intertextual field, one in which musical sound, history, and personal commentary intermingle. Part of thinking in jazz is thus to conceive of the music in this multivalent fashion, as signifying on multiple fronts. 27 Similarly, the artists I discuss have been intent on developing original, sometimes esoteric work, and yet, through both music and text, they have consistently used that work to address their place in history and their relationship to artists and thinkers who have preceded them. Just as a jazz-based relationship between personal voice and historical precedent permeated the downtown scene broadly, it also imbued the RJC moment. If we approach their music with this dynamic in mind, we can understand it as signifying on the relationship between an artist s Jewishly personal voice, his or her creative voice, and the relationship of both to Jewish heritage and tradition.
Even as downtown musicians sought to develop unique creative voices, they shared an interest in bridging high-low cultural divides and bringing many different musics into dialogue. Zorn, with his embrace of music from cartoons and so-called spaghetti westerns, on one hand, and his references to modernist composers such as Arnold Schoenberg and Karlheinz Stockhausen on the other, is the most prominent example of the scene s wide purview. There was no academic program, no artistic residency, no music conservatory, and no commercial context that came close to the Lower East Side in offering these artists a forum for exploring their wide-ranging interests, but the downtown music world seemed tailor-made to suit them. That world might best be understood as a creative ecosystem, one formed by musical subcultures, bands, and individuals who came together because of shared interests, while simultaneously cultivating the very traits that would make them distinct. Much like any ecosystem, the downtown music world changed with the seasons. The arrival of a new club or new artist could instigate changes that rippled through the wider scene. Composer/improvisers affiliated with the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians ( AACM ), for example, many of whom had moved to New York City by the 1980s, changed the scene indelibly through their work and influence, and Zorn himself helped to foment a major shift in the Lower East Side s musical ecosystem. Soon after he arrived downtown in the late 1970s, a group of musicians began meeting to jam, rehearse, and perform in a small West Village basement space he leased, called Studio Henry; in the years that followed, Zorn s ensembles, compositions, and conducted improvisations drew together a network of simpatico collaborators. This is the group of artists to whom the phrase downtown scene often refers, and it is likewise the group on whom I concentrate in this book, but these artists occupied only one of the wider scene s many strata. To be sure, it is a messy, ragged category. Artists downtown constantly circulated through different musical contexts. By downtown scene, then, I mean not only the musical production that happened amongst Zorn and his most frequent collaborators, but also downtown s other crisscrossing musical networks.
The artists in my purview were new arrivals on the scene in their twenties and thirties, drawn together by a shared interest in developing their voices as experimentalists and composer/improvisers. Some had moved downtown straight out of degree programs in jazz or classical composition and performance, while others were already playing professionally in jazz, blues, rock, or soul bands. Some had delved into experimental rock and No Wave, and a few had experience in avant-garde theater. Most had studied with, and had been profoundly influenced by, artists in the jazz avant-garde. All had cultivated wide-ranging listening habits and were hungry for like-minded collaborators. As Hirsch recounted of her artistic projects of the late 1970s:
I did a lot of different kinds of music. Like I was singing for a Korean dancer, I was working with a downtown minimalist composer . . . [and] singing with [pianist] Kirk Nurock. . . . I d hang out with . . . [Jeffrey Lohn s No Wave band] Theoretical Girls. . . . And then I met [pianist] Joel Forrester and started singing bebop songs with him. And then I joined a rock group. So I was always in different worlds! Always. 28
As a vocalist in a scene made up mostly of instrumentalists, Hirsch is unusual, and she even among her peers also has remarkable creative flexibility, moving fluidly among widely divergent musical contexts. But such accounts are typical of composer/improvisers. On the downtown scene, these omnivorous listeners could perform and collaborate in an exhilarating variety of creative contexts that spoke to their diverse musical interests.
Soon after opening on Houston Street in 1987, the Knit became the central nucleus for artists on a downtown scene that had not yet been named. The club focused on composer/improvisers, both those who were new arrivals and those from established avant-garde jazz circles. Dim and stuffy though it was, the Knit created a collective flash of self-recognition: the downtown music scene, even if it did not yet have a distinct name or identity, was palpably more than the sum of its parts. At the Knit, where artists encountered a shifting series of microcosms of the downtown music world, they could consider the role played by their individual work and ideas in relation to the whole. As clarinetist Don Byron recalled in 2004:
Everybody lived within walking distance from the old Knit [i.e., the club s original location]. . . . There was a lot of intermingling, and people heard and got to respect [one another]. . . . There s no place like that anymore, where the scene is so alive that I just want to be there tonight , to see what s gonna come down. . . . Being able to hear that kind of a range of music, at one place I frequented-that s so me. I mean, anybody that knows me, knows that s so what I m like. That s what my house is like. So I felt completely comfortable at the Knitting Factory. . . . Anything could happen on a given night. [That was] the way I thought about music. I could be playing anything on a given night. So, I liked going there more than I liked going to Bradley s [a jazz club in the West Village]. Bradley s didn t express all of me. Nor did going to the New York Philharmonic, or going to the Met. Those things only expressed a part of me. The Knitting Factory expressed quite a bit of me. 29
My interviewees shared Byron s warmth toward the sense of community the Knit engendered. Of course, if the circulation of artists and ideas was one of downtown s great attributes, it was not a perfectly free flow. Downtown s musical sub-scenes-which were supported by venues and delimited by genre and performance practice-were also, and relatedly, mitigated by reified boundaries of race, class, and access. Although the Knitting Factory s programming was remarkably varied, it was hardly a full representation of the Lower East Side s music world. By and large, despite the presence of a large Latino community and vibrant Latin music scene on the Lower East Side, the club did not program Latin music, nor was it a venue for hip hop, despite that genre s burgeoning presence in the neighborhood and its influence on the downtown visual art scene. 30 But the club-a commercial concern that presented music for paying customers, protected its own interests, and fomented its share of disputes with performers over pay and copyright-also served an important social function among the artists who gathered there to play, hang out, and stay in touch with new creative developments. 31 Through both its programming and its humming social dynamic, then, the Knitting Factory did something unprecedented. The downtown scene s multiplicity was normally an inchoate quality, experienced in fragments. In a way appropriate to its name, the Knit brought together those quicksilver flashes, unifying them briefly each night and making that multiplicity tangible to both artists and observers.
Iconoclasm, Pluralism, and the Search for New Language
Downtown s denizens of the 1980s were such a heterogeneous group, and they followed such idiosyncratic creative paths, that it is fruitless (and misleading) to try to identify one common style or aesthetic. But they did share some key concerns. First, in addition to their wide-ranging interests, they were creative misfits who had come of age in the 1960s during an era of dramatic changes in the American musical landscape. In talking about their formative musical experiences, my interviewees recollections ranged widely over live shows by Frank Zappa, Charles Mingus, and Duke Ellington, Busby Berkeley films, workshops with artists from the AACM , the premiere of John Cage s Renga with Apartment House (1776) , and recordings of all kinds. Those who undertook formal training in the 1970s and 1980s tended to be stymied by the creative constraints they encountered in their studies, while those who performed professionally recall searching for a forum that would allow them to synthesize their interests and experiences. Second, these artists shared an interest in noise, especially as this notion encompasses not only high volumes, dissonance, distortion, and unmusical sounds, but also conceptual noise, that is, in a loosely Attalian sense, the breach of convention. This value led artists to a third common concern, that of tweaking codified styles or working outside them altogether. In disrupting common practice, their outr musical language amounted to a kind of defamiliarizing syntactical noise-hence the scene s association with the phrase New York Noise. Artists downtown tended to manifest this interest by juxtaposing idioms that ostensibly did not belong together, thereby disrupting the hierarchies of taste that often underlie judgments of artistic quality. Although they incorporated a panoply of stylistic influences, their music seldom hewed to any one style. When it ostensibly did-for example, in Naked City, Zorn s hardcore rock band-artists invariably used formal innovations to subvert that style s typical constraints.

Figure 0.1. The Old Knit on Houston Street, c. 1988. Photo: Michael Dorf .
On one hand, these artists, who drew on such a wide range of idioms, found incoherence to be a risk worth taking in the service of forging open-ended, flexible musical syntax out of many constituent parts. In Coleman s words, What I m looking for is to . . . let the references in language flow more freely and anarchically and make sense out of that . I m interested in people who risk incoherence. 32 On the other hand, in an ensemble, incoherence was a stage to be moved through along the way to fruitful interactions. Thus, as saxophonist Roy Nathanson asserted, The [Jazz] Passengers, and all the other bands I was with, were really about mixing language. People from different cultures, different backgrounds, coming together and finding some kind of common language . . . and invent[ing] something new. And I think that s the richest of the American things you can do. 33 A pluralistic approach to genre and a preference for working outside style led composer/improvisers of varied creative backgrounds to collaborate in ensembles, in which they then worked through (or failed to work through) their musical differences. Indeed, by making a connection between common musical language and American pluralism, Nathanson articulated a position shared by colleagues who linked their social ideals to the search for new creative paradigms. As Ehrlich explained:
Anthony Braxton put out his solo saxophone record ( For Alto , 1969)-and inside [in the liner notes] he said, I listen to James Brown, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Charlie Parker, Mozart, and the [Baka] Pygmies, and Marvin Gaye, or something. . . . That blew my mind, as a young kid! . . . My generation s defined by that. Both a desire, and the fact that everything became available. . . . And I think that s a radical thing. I think we re breaking down the [walls]. And that s been one of my passions. 34
On both a creative and social level, such pluralistic principles were at play during the RJC moment. To be sure, some artists were wary of participating in a project focused around cultural identity. Insofar as personal experience and identification were wrapped up in the project, RJC would be not only a Jewishly identified scene but also most likely a white one; as creative individuals, musicians might well want to plumb the depths of their own Jewish experiences, but if whole ensembles were formed around this idea, no matter what the intention, RJC would be lending de facto support to white homogeneity on the downtown scene. My interviewees, though committed to following through on the creative promise of the RJC idea, took a jaded view of it in this sense, and this is one reason they were ambivalent about taking the whole as an enterprise, a movement, or anything more than the sum of its parts. At the same time, pluralism was central to downtown artists conceptions of Jewish identity, and they were intrigued by the idea of developing work that could engage the multitudes they inhabited, and by which they were inhabited, as Jewish American experimentalists.
Historian Jonathan Freedman has proposed a model of Jewish American identity that is particularly useful in regard to making sense of this goal. In Freedman s view, that identity is mobile, multidimensional, transactional. 35 Jewish and American, he argues, are equal players in Jewish American identity -that is, this identity is shaped fundamentally both by a sense of Jewish identification and by an immersion in a pluralistic, culturally diverse society. In an essay about RJC titled Reflections in J, Coleman has neatly illustrated the applicability of this model to his downtown colleagues. He glosses the Lower East Side as analogous to Spain s medieval Golden Age, when Spanish Jews lived in relative harmony with Christians and Muslims. They weren t really in love with each other during the Golden Age of Spain, he observes. They just didn t run around killing each other. But that s already a lot. It kind of reminds me of New York. Everything interpenetrates everything here-up to a point. Artists investment in this kind of cultural interpenetration also informed the RJC moment. In his Lower East Side neighborhood, he explains:
The Puerto Ricans are blasting their car radios, Trust Fund Babies experience the frisson of living in a cutting edge neighborhood for $2000 a month, tortured Jewish bohos (myself included) channel the history of Downtown, not just the stetl of the early part of the century, but the Ginsbergian-Kerouacian-Burroughsian history too. . . . Then there are the Polish and Ukrainian restaurants left over from that period of East Village history . . . our local Mosque. . . . homeless people (still!) of all stripes . . . 24-hour Korean delis, Pakistani newsdealers, a completely Japanese street. . . . You get the idea. Radical Jewish Culture came out of all this-and it recedes back into it. 36
Coleman is skeptical about the connection between embracing the neighborhood s diversity and affecting wider social change, adding, Can this change the world, providing a model for how people can live together in all their variety? Probably not. But as he intimates in his depiction of the dynamics of his neighborhood and the workings of his psyche, for him and his cohort, Jewish identity participated in the puzzle of American identity in general, and downtown Manhattan identity in particular. Indeed, with its dense city blocks and multi-layered past, the Lower East Side streetscape brought into sight a particularly diverse American-ness. And like many New Yorkers, downtown artists identified strongly with this aspect of their city and felt that for all its problems, it realized the promise of American pluralism in a way that was unmatched anywhere else in the country, and was often unappreciated. As guitarist Elliott Sharp remarked drily, monologuist Spalding Grey had a great line. He said, New York is a small island off the coast of America. 37 If downtown s musicians were American in the way that their city and neighborhood were American, their Jewish American identities had a similar character. In Coleman s view, RJC s main promise would be realized through music that reflected upon this reality, in a downtownish mien.
In embarking on this project, artists had the tools they needed close at hand. The downtown scene, after all, derived energy from multiplicity, and the praxis of composition/improvisation was one of the main avenues through which artists engaged the music they found most vital-whatever the era or idiom. Artists were already immersed in developing musical language that spoke to them with unique contemporary and personal relevance. They were thus already involved in bringing their individual voices into a community-wide conversation. And yet, Jewish artists had engaged this project largely without considering whether things Jewish-experiences, languages, melodies, texts, memories-had any bearing on the process. On a scene where personal voice was paramount, this absence was notable. Although one could readily point to ensembles downtown that commented on aspects of identity, including gender, sexuality, race, and African American heritage, Jewish identity was not part of this discourse.
This absence was all the more puzzling in that many downtown artists recalled Jewish musical traditions as having been interwoven into the musical landscape of their youths, particularly cantorial music and Yiddish songs. For example, Ribot grew up with regular Friday night dinners with his family that revolved around the music of the Yiddish theater. Similarly, Nathanson explained, I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood, in Midwood [Brooklyn]. . . . I did have some passing acquaintance with . . . klezmer music. . . . But more than that, Yiddish music, because my uncle . . . was the translator for Joseph Singer [brother to Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer]. . . . And during our family [Passover] seders in Brooklyn, we sang Yiddish songs. 38 (With the exception of Nathanson, downtown artists, like most of their peers in the klezmer renaissance, did not recall having heard much if any klezmer music in their youths.) Ehrlich, Hirsch, and drummer Joey Baron all recount having been strongly affected by cantorial singing-in Baron s case, on recordings his parents listened to at home, for Ehrlich during his family s regular synagogue attendance, and for Hirsch when she snuck into services at the local Orthodox shul . 39
The RJC idea, then, developed into a new dialogic challenge. With the scene s multitude of influences, its emphasis on personal voice, and its sizable cohort of Jewish composer/improvisers, why had Jewish heritage been virtually absent from its artists music and creative self-concept? Did that heritage, in fact, have any bearing on the work artists had developed up to this point, even if they had not been fully aware of the connection? And could their music, and the creative processes of downtownish composition/improvisation, be used to signify compellingly and in new ways on Jewish heritage, identity, or experience? These questions led to a rush of music and conversation, shaped by differences of opinion that both animated the RJC moment and, at times, threatened to derail it.
Contesting the Meaning of Radical Jewish Culture
The idea for what came to be called Radical Jewish Culture emerged out of conversations that had sprung up among a group of musicians who began to meet regularly in the late 1980s to discuss the relevance of Jewish heritage, or the visible lack thereof, to the downtown scene. The Knit, which hosted the first RJC festivals, was a key locus for these conversations, but it was not the only one. As Coleman recalled, RJC created . . . for a little while, a forum. . . . We were meeting here [in Mogador, a Moroccan restaurant and East Village hangout] all the time. . . . A real community was happening, and there was a lot of meeting going on. 40 As the RJC moment gathered momentum, artists conversations delved into its aesthetic possibilities, conceptual challenges, and sociopolitical implications. Such discussions about Jewish heritage had bubbled up here and there over the years, but they reached a new intensity just as identity politics were becoming a major force in popular music. In the late 1980s, hip hop, which had been a presence downtown since its early years, had broken out onto the national stage, as the band Public Enemy made the genre a forum for black solidarity and social critique. By the early 1990s, performers were taking on issues of gender and sexuality in underground rock bands such as the riot grrrl band Bikini Kill and queercore (queer hardcore) band Pansy Division. 41 And when RJC offered artists downtown a similar public forum, it was also recapitulating earlier identity-driven movements in improvised music, including Asian Americans in the 1980s Asian improv scene, and of course African Americans throughout the history of jazz, and conspicuously during the 1960s. 42
Even as the politics of identity were emerging as a powerful musical force in marginalized communities, conflicts inevitably followed. As musicologist Benjamin Piekut has illustrated in a discussion of New York s Jazz Composers Guild in the 1960s, identity-driven musical projects have long been prone to conflicts over ideological lines, and the conversations preceding the Munich festival had likewise been roiled with differences of opinion about the purposes and meanings of RJC -both the concept and the rubric. Whether the moniker was Radical Jewish Music or Radical Jewish Culture, radical was the main sticking point. Whether or not Zorn deployed the word with the intention to provoke, it tied in with a number of interlinked issues about which artists in his circle heartily disagreed. Ribot, for example, asserted that in seeking a name for the Munich festival, my suggestion was Loud and Pushy Music . . . [which] at least had descriptive value. But almost every word in [Radical Jewish Culture] is problematic to me. 43 Ribot and Sharp articulated the most forthright objections to the phrase, but Radical Jewish Culture, which worked as a commercial hook, also struck other artists as overly brash and not descriptively useful. Some felt that RJC , an essentially creative phenomenon, could not claim to be radical in the political sense the term implied. Several downtown artists had a history of engaging around political causes historically associated with the Jewish left-including labor organizing, tenants rights, civil rights, union building, and antiwar activism-and just as hip hop and queercore artists had used their music to advocate for social change, a few artists thought the idea of Radical Jewish Culture might engage their Jewish colleagues downtown with grassroots community organizing around political issues.
By and large, artists were frustrated in their ambitions to pair art with political action. Under the guise of RJC , artists did collaborate on some politically oriented projects, including two Artists Against the Occupation benefit concerts in 2002 and 2003, which contributed funds to Israeli and Palestinian organizations, but RJC s ultimate failure to materialize into a more concerted form of political action should not have been surprising. As Ehrlich asserted, I think anyone who s ever done political work knows that actually the work of changing material conditions is a much different process [than the work of making art]. That s its own sort of work. That doesn t take away from the importance of art-I think it s as crucial as anything. We all make our different peace with these sort of things. Or we make different choices. . . . I think the question of what is radical and what is Jewish, and how they intersect, is . . . interesting for us Jews to ponder, [but it is not at the crux of] the burning question of how we continue to make a creative, pluralistic American culture. 44 Not all of Ehrlich s colleagues were as even-handed in their assessment of the phrase Radical Jewish Culture, as some took a hard line against what they saw as a specious claim to radicalism that deflected attention from what they saw as the burning issues of race, class, and difference in American social discourse and the political sphere. They were driven by a question articulated by historian and religious scholar Daniel Boyarin: How can I ethically construct a particular identity which is extremely precious to me without falling into ethnocentrism or racism of one kind or another? 45 More than an interest in building Jewish solidarity, they voiced concerns about holding the line against reactionary forces in the United States, and about the slippage that can occur between celebrations of cultural pride and the ethnocentrism or racism to which Boyarin alludes. Indeed, Sharp maintained that RJC was radical in neither its musical language nor its political presentation: Radical Jewish music [i.e., the real thing] is radical because it is [musically] radical. Unfortunately, what happened was Radical Jewish Music came to be defined as klezmer, or [music] that . . . [is] reduced to Jewish signifiers. And it s not radical music, for one thing, and the politics in which it s presented are not radical. [They don t] challenge authority. Sharp also objected to the word radical because he associated it with the hardcore nationalism of Israel s right-wing parties, ultra-Orthodox communities, and American groups such as Meir Kahane s Jewish Defense League. As he explained, I understood the definition of quote unquote Radical Jewish Culture in the same context of, you know, radical white culture, as a reactionary notion, not as a progressive notion. That it was . . . nationalistic- we are cool, we are right, that kind of thing, reveling in group identity. 46 With their personal and artistic identity bound up with their position at a cultural and creative margin, downtown artists are generally skeptical of what Sharp calls reveling in group identity. As Nathanson explained in regard to RJC s potential to activate community pride, I think that nationalism and identity politics in some kind of way, given the vicissitudes of racism, and all this kind of stuff, is such loaded shit. . . . And I think it s best probably left alone. But Nathanson tempered this ambivalence with an appreciation for what RJC had meant to the Jewish musicians involved: But-be that as it may-[ RJC ] was very honest at that time. Very honest at that time. We really did think so. 47 As Nathanson s comment indicates, downtown artists who were wary of identity politics were not rejecting Jewish communitas. Indeed, many saw the conversations and spirit of the RJC moment as having represented an important alternative space for Jewish community building. But they were determined to keep in full view the value they placed on American racial diversity and cultural pluralism, a value that played a defining role in their lives and music.
The issue of defining the meaning of radical touches on a complicated tension that arose between the artists on whom I focus and their downtown colleagues involved in neo-klezmer. Neo-klezmer is a loosely defined genre that describes some of the music on Tzadik s RJC series, and in its most abstracted guise it has some points of overlap with the music on which I focus. Although both groups of musicians were seeking to engage American Jewishness through innovative musical means, they disagreed sharply about the best way to do so, with artists in the RJC camp insisting that klezmer music, which seemed celebratory, was problematic in that what it was celebrating was the connection to an imagined past, a rhetorical move of which they were politically suspicious and creatively leery. Neo-klezmer artists disagreed. London, for example, contended that getting involved in klezmer music had strengthened his commitment to social and political causes. As he wrote in 1993, Learning from the Women s, African-American s, and Native American [movements], and all movements of oppressed groups, group pride and identification are primary steps in our empowerment. The universalist in me often cries out against such strong and perhaps divisive group identification. However, the personal strength I have gained as an outgrowth of positive [Jewish] self-knowledge and identity enables me to work to create a better world. In Jewish terms, this [kind of work] is our taste of Tikkun. 48 As London indicates by mentioning the Jewish ethical precept of tikkun olam , or repair of the world, he and his cohort of neo-klezmer artists proved to be passionate about the genre s role in championing minority identities-Jewish, queer, and experimentalist. Indeed, with its role in the Queer Yiddishkeit movement, neo-klezmer (in particular London s band, the Klezmatics) gave the klezmer revival the very sociopolitical focus that some of London s downtown colleagues found lacking on the RJC scene. There was thus both irony and frustrated idealism underlying their ambivalence toward RJC as a cultural enterprise.
Scholarly debates about the notion of diaspora help illuminate artists conflicts on this front. In fact, the differences of opinion provoked by the word radical played out along the lines of tension between competing scholarly assessments of the politics of diasporic consciousness. Neo-klezmer artists tended to position the klezmer revival as a positive act of diasporic community in the sense denoted by postcolonial theorists, for whom, as anthropologist Pnina Werbner wrote in 2000, articulating a diasporic subject position was one way to transgress . . . hegemonic constructions of national homogeneity. In the sense championed by these artists, then, their work played a part in allowing those with repressed histories and marginalized identities to recoup a sense of dignity and pride, and thence political agency. This view had obvious traction in the way some neo-klezmer artists made diasporic Jewish consciousness-raising a platform for queer activism. However, scholars have also turned a more critical eye to claims of cultural solidarity among marginalized groups, pointing out the continued imbrication of diasporas in nationalist rhetoric. 49 In contrast to their colleagues in neo-klezmer, RJC s core artists were warier of such imbrications, and they were skeptical about the whole enterprise of writing music that celebrated a culture they purportedly shared, but which they had never experienced firsthand. Indeed, some downtown artists were determined not only to steer clear of klezmer in their own work-but also to make work that was resistant to the notion of cultural or ethnic pride altogether. 50 What would be radical about their music, then, would be its resistance to easy identification with any Jewish music of the past, and its traversal of creative and emotional terrain left unaddressed by any other Jewish music they had so far encountered. Over the course of the 1990s and beyond, artists would continue grappling with the relationship among Jewish identification, community affiliation, and creative voice. In so doing they would not settle their differences, but they would develop truly radical means for configuring contemporary Jewish music and identity.
Jewish Music
The Art of Getting It Wrong
IN HIS EPILOGUE TO THE BOOK JEWISH MUSIC AND MODERNITY , ethnomusicologist Philip Bohlman describes several narratives by which musicians and observers frame the character of Jewish music in Central and Eastern Europe today. Each of Bohlman s narratives functions as a conceptual lens one looks through to bring Jewish music into focus in a unique way. That is, each lens constructs a particular notion of Jewish music, and each of these notions is based on a selective interpretation of contemporary music-making. Bohlman s subject is dramatically different from that of RJC , and the site of Europe as the near annihilation of Jewish musicians and musical culture creates, in one sense, a chasm between the two contexts that cannot be bridged. But in a less contextually determined sense his insights are extremely useful in conceptualizing the Radical Jewish Culture moment.
Among the mostly non-Jewish performers and audiences Bohlman addresses, one narrative lens renders contemporary Jewish music exotic. A quality of exoticism inheres not only because the music is Jewish per se, but also because Jewish culture carries a patina of pastness, denoting both something ancient and something gone. Like other exotic artifacts, this lens makes Jewish music, and by association Jewish culture and history, easy to consume. 1 As ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin has observed, in the 1990s klezmer filled a complicated niche in Europe on the level of the exotic, offering Europeans a vision of [Jewish] Americans as representing a romantic, faraway musical tradition that has had little to do with the concerns of present-day Jews in the European body politic. 2 Indeed, a perception of Jewish music (and Jews) as exotic has played an important role in the creative lives of downtown musicians when performing in Europe, just as it has with their colleagues in the klezmer revival. As artists have attested interviews and in writing, their perceptions of this attitude have influenced the way they have presented themselves and their Jewishly identified work. But audiences, both Jewish and not, bring many different stories to their encounters with Jewish music, and the presence of one narrative lens does not preclude that of another, seemingly contradictory one. Thus, alongside the lens that construes Jewish music as exotic, another construes it as something not to be assessed as other but to be adopted as one s own-an object of neglect that should be embraced and reanimated with as much fidelity as possible to the original. This view, which is typical of musical revivals in general, has resonances with the outlook of the early klezmer revivalists in the United States (with the obvious difference most revivalists were Jewish, whereas most of Bohlman s subjects were not)-just as it does with the mostly middle-class urbanites who instigated the U.S. folk revival of the 1960s, adopting rural idioms and championing the values they associated with rural communities, in a process one historian has memorably called romancing the folk. 3 There is yet another lens that corresponds closely not to the viewpoint of strict revivalists but to that of their colleagues in the neo-klezmer scene. This lens focuses contemporary Jewish music into that which is not revived but rather revitalized. Artists who frame Jewish music in this fashion are driven by a desire to discover the vitality of a tradition that can live in the present rather than an urge to salvage one that had already died in its own day. It is just such a view that led klezmer historian and musician Henry Sapoznik to argue for the term renaissance rather than revival to describe the surge of interest in klezmer music in the United States in the late twentieth century. 4
Bohlman s insights into the role played by revitalization have a unique resonance for Radical Jewish Culture, offering a basis for understanding RJC s signal contributions to Jewish music and musical discourse. However, this is not so because downtown artists adopted revitalization as central to their cause. To the contrary, the musicians on whom I focus developed their work and ideas in part as a reaction against the idea that revitalization-updating old genres, klezmer in particular-should be the main engine for creating new Jewish music. To make sense of their critique, it helps to turn back to Bohlman s discussion of his third conceptual lens, which speaks saliently to downtown artists views on revitalization. He notes that the artists participating in the project of revitalizing tradition want to put glitter and guilt behind them, instead going about the serious business of getting a contemporary Jewish music right . Doing that means learning languages, especially Yiddish and Hebrew, and it also means scholarly study, whenever and wherever that is possible. 5 The phrase glitter and guilt is striking, but I would like to pause here to take note of the latter part of this passage, for it is through the notion of getting a contemporary Jewish music right that this lens brings the most crucial and compelling quality of RJC into sharp focus. To bring that quality into full view, one must (to stretch the metaphor slightly) look through the wrong end of the telescope. 6
Rather than seeking to get the new Jewish music right, then, the artists on whom I focus were motivated by the creative and cultural potential that lay in getting it wrong. It was precisely by sidestepping received notions about the proper way to go about making new Jewish music that they were able to channel their Jewish subjectivities and creative concerns into the project of the RJC moment: to make work whose language and praxis resonated with the particularities of their own Jewish experiences as well as with their creative concerns as experimentalists. These artists, like those Bohlman describes, come from a new generation, and they are interested in telling their own stories to make music that draws on the sounds of the past while resonating with a contemporary soundscape. 7 Their Jewish stories were both highly personal and downtownishly musical. That is, the stories were peculiarly their own and no one else s, both in that they reflected individual, subjective experience and because, as both composer and performer, each artist told his or her story in an idiosyncratic musical voice. The challenge was to create art that represented a compelling symbiosis among all these qualities.
Artists envisioned this music as offering listeners a paradigm for engaging aspects of Jewish American identity and subjectivity that could not be addressed in a more familiar musical way. Certainly, focused historical and language studies could form one basis for developing new Jewish music, but downtown artists sought another. If the Jewish qualities of their stories were highly personal, and thus hard to hear in the music, so be it. In developing music to reflect on the particular qualities of their Jewish experiences, they were, in Geertz s classic formulation, seeking to use art to materialize a way of experiencing; bring a particular cast of mind out into the world of objects, where men can look at it. 8 These aims saw their first major public manifestation in September 1992, at the Festival for Radical New Jewish Culture in Munich. In the years that followed, artists vigorously debated the panoply of issues that arose in conjunction with their creative project. These discussions emerged with such force in part because they contained the seeds of ideas that had been germinating on the scene, in the guise of occasional Jewishly identified pieces that artists had developed in the years that preceded the festival.
Before RJC , Jewish Music on the Downtown Scene
Downtown s Jewishly identified pieces were isolated efforts,

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